Underreported. Underdiagnosed. Undertreated. When we are asked about military sexual trauma claims, those are the first three words that jump to mind. As frightening as those descriptors are, they are, unfortunately, accurate. For women particularly, the effects of MST can be pervasive in all aspects of their lives and can result in lasting disability and undeserved stigma, embarrassment, and humiliation. Winning a VA disability claim based on the physical or mental residuals of MST can be difficult, and the process can cause the victim to have to re-live very painful life events. But these claims can be won, and some form of justice can be had.
What is MST?
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is the term coined by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault or repeated and threatening sexual harassment that occurred while a Veteran was in the military. It includes any sexual activity where an individual is involved against his or her will or where the individual is pressured, whether it be through threats or by promises of faster promotions or better treatment, into sexual activities. MST also encompasses situations in which a Veteran may have been unable to consent to sexual activities or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. MST also includes unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening or offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and/or threatening or unwelcome sexual advances. As many victims of MST can attest, words, in the form of threats or harassment, can be as damaging as physical violence.
How common is MST?
Although there is conflicting data as to the number of service members who experience MST, most studies suggest that the number is frighteningly high. In 2013, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit asking for a change in the way the VA handles MST claims. In their petition, the organizations stated that “Widespread rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment plague the military, threatening the strength of the armed forces, undermining national security, and destroying the lives of survivors and their families.” In the United States’ general population, it is estimated that nearly twenty percent of adult women have been sexually assaulted. While that number is alarming, the number of women raped or sexually assaulted in the military is even higher. SWAN and the Vietnam Veterans of America reported that almost one in three women is raped during her time in service and more than half of service women experience unwanted sexual contact.
How will (should) the VA handle my MST-related claim?
First, it is important to realize that you should not just file a claim for “MST”. Your claim should be for the physical or mental impairments you suffer as a result of the MST you experienced. Too often we see veterans make the mistake of claiming “MST”, only to have their claim promptly denied because they failed to allege a specific impairment caused by the MST. As far as the impairments related to MST, they can be physical or mental. Physical residuals might include injuries suffered during the assault, infection with a sexually transmitted disease, or chronic pain. Compensable mental residuals of MST might include depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol abuse, and PTSD. It is also paramount that if you file a claim for the physical or mental residuals of MST, you must provide evidence corroborating the trauma. This can be really difficult because MST is often unreported, undocumented, or scrubbed from in-service records. Further, MST victims are not covered by 38 C.F.R. § 3.304(f)(3), which allows the award of PTSD claims without documented stressors when the alleged stressor was related to the “fear of hostile military activity.” Although organizations such as SWAN and the Vietnam Veterans of America are attempting to petition the VA to add a subsection to 38 C.F.R. § 3.304 that would allow an evidentiary presumption for MST cases, no such rule has been adopted yet. Despite the heavy evidentiary burden placed on the victims of MST, it is important to note that documentation of MST is not limited to an actual contemporaneous report of the incident in the veteran’s service records. Records from law enforcement authorities, rape crisis centers, mental health counseling centers, hospitals, or physicians can corroborate a claim for MST. So, too, can statements from family members, roommates, fellow service members, or clergy. The VA may also consider pregnancy tests, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, requests for transfers to other duty assignments, deterioration in work performance, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and other unexplainable economic or behavior changes as evidence supporting a claim of MST. The regulations governing the treatment of claims related to MST are undeniably prejudicial to the victims of that trauma, and reform of the VA regulations in this area is needed. Although the VA now allows acceptable corroborating evidence to be used in MST claims absent in-service record of the event or events, there still persists meaningful discrepancies between the grant rates for MST-related PTSD claims and all other PTSD claims. Despite those challenges, women can and do win claims for the residuals of MST every day. It is important that you understand your right to file a claim for injuries suffered from a MST and the kind of corroborating evidence you will need.
Where can I get help with my MST-related claim and disabilities?
When women veterans call our office on MST-related claims, the overwhelming emotion that we hear in their voices is betrayal. They feel betrayed by the perpetrator of the MST, betrayed by their unit or superiors, and betrayed by the VA when their claim is denied. For every woman that calls me for help, we always wonder how many simply give up when their claims are denied. Too many, we’re guessing. It is important that women veterans know that there are understanding, compassionate attorneys and non-attorney representatives that can help you with your claim. They are familiar with the sensitive nature of these claims and the challenges they bring. Because of the sensitive nature of these claims, it is important that you feel comfortable with your representative. Consider whether you would be more comfortable talking with a male or female representative or attorney about your claim. Also consider whether you would prefer a local attorney or representative that you can speak with face-to-face or if you would prefer or are comfortable speaking with an attorney or a representative on the phone. Although trust may be difficult for many MST victims, you must find an attorney or presentative you can trust with your claim. The same goes for finding a mental health provider to help victims deal with MST. There are numerous resources available to women who need mental health treatment for conditions related to their MST. Every VA medical center has trained specialists in MST, and many offer gender-specific counseling classes. More intensive inpatient treatment programs are also offered at select VA medical centers. For those women veterans distrustful of the VA system, there are also many private physicians with experience dealing with MST who can help.
Never forget that you are not alone, help is available, and you can make your voice heard.